On “The Beauty of the World”

This is a short essay on Jonathan Edwards essay The Beauty of the World, written this month by one of my high school students. I found it to be compelling in its simplicity and insight. Reprinted with the permission of the author, for your pleasure and consideration…

What is beauty? Jonathan Edwards defines beauty as the combination of qualities that make something pleasing and impressive to look at, listen to, touch, smell, or taste. What is the difference between beauty being objective or subjective? Objective usually connotes having to do with facts about the physical, material world. Subjective means “in the mind of a subject”.

Jonathan Edwards believes that beauty is an objective reality (14, 15).* He argues that beauty is in the object and not in the opinion of the person looking at it. Usually, we look at something and think, ‘wow, this is beautiful!’ But is there anything which is beautiful objectively, that is, apart from a person making a subjective judgment? Does ‘wow, it is beautiful!’ mean no more than ‘I like it?’ This conflicts with conventional experience because when we say something is beautiful, we imply that everyone would think it beautiful. In contrast, however, it is a practical fact that different things are beautiful to different people (14). Therefore, it is argued, beauty is subjective.There may, however, be a thing that, being seen, should please. In other words, if an object isn’t pleasing to someone, that person is somehow at error. Such an object would, then, be objectively beautiful (pg. 15).

 

In Beauty of the World Edwards lays out his understanding of beauty (14-15).Although he is well aware of and enamored by the beauty of nature, he grounds beauty in proportionality and ‘suitableness (14-15).’ He says that modern light theory posits a proportionate relationship of vibrations, stimulating the optic nerve that makes the green grass and blue sky and white clouds agreeable (pg. 14). Colors are a source of ‘palpable’ beauty (pg.14-15). Edwards argues that beauty is the right relations of things to other things. They partake of a proportionately ‘sweet mutual consent’ (14-15). This definition of being frees us from having to say, ‘beauty is what people take delight in.’ We can freely say, ‘beauty is proportionate,’ and, ‘what is proportionate is often what people find pleasing (14-15).’ Therefore, beauty according to Jonathan Edwards is objective.”

  

The page references are to the Jonathan Edwards Reader, ISBN: 0 300 09838 3
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  • Deb

    This was excellent and good food for thought. It makes me wonder what Edwards would have thought of the original Temple (which God must have thought as beautiful, but perhaps Edwards would have labeled “gawdy” – if I may be so bold) or a Russian Icon.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Enthusiasmos

    Edwards does betray an apparent inconsistency in his thought when he simultaneously praises the extravagent beauty of nature and scoffs at the extravagent beauty of a beautiful house.

    Either this apparent contradiction is an actual contradiction, or not. If not, it probably lies in his distinction between “God’s art” and man’s art. God made mountains and blue skys and sunsets, so that is acceptable. But men spending thousands of dollars on decorations, clothes, fine food and other “frivolities” irks his desire to use the money more “usefully…” Ie giving it to the poor or using it for missions.

    I think, however, it is a contradiction. The temple you bring up, Deb, is a good example. God seems to care about extravagent beauty. And his providence of beauty in nature does not seem to be a cue to “leave it to the experts,” but a command to “imitate Christ.” We must not leave Nature to do our work for us; we must imitate the Creator and create beauty ourselves.

    How do we know this? First, the only tempting alternative to spending some of our time and money on beauty is, as Edwards says, that we can “put it to use” by “giving it to the poor.” Judas had a similar idea. When the women wanted to pour out her expensive perfume on the feet of the Lord Jesus, Judas said she was wasting perfectly good money that could be used for the poor. Jesus said “she has done a beautiful thing to me.” (Matthew 26)

    Second, the human spirit requires beauty for survival. The body may require food, drink, sleep, air, light, and physical affection for survival, but the soul requires, truth and beauty. Look at the longest surviving cultures in human history, Greece, Rome, China, England, Russia, and ask yourself if beauty is an essential part of its cultural and spiritual life. If the answer is Yes, ask yourself if there are any exceptions. Then look at short-lived barbarian cultures, the Mongolians, the Tarters and Turks, look at the short-lived civilizations in France as it changed hands during the Revolution and contrast their cultural life, contrast the priority they placed on aesthetics with the former. If it is true that beauty is part of the lifeblood of the human spirit, then it is inconceivable that God would prohibit us from partaking of it.

    I think Edwards suffers from a common modern feeling that beauty is frivolous and extraordinary and inefficient. It is sad that Christians have also adopted this foolish and ahistorical sentiment.